When geeks come together to discuss the pop culture phenomena, speculation has a tendency to run rampant.
Obsession is a cornerstone of the geek life; we immerse ourselves in a beloved world among the stars (Wars or Trek) or in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The escapism, the world building, the lore is all part of the attraction.
Such is the case with “Stranger Things” the Netflix fantasy/mild horror series currently streaming its third season. The play within the play of “Stranger Things” is that it’s a show about geeks for geeks set in the classic geek era of the mid-1980s. The show – centered on a quartet of boys – celebrates pop culture and geek life even as it adds its own imprint on that legacy.
The theory in question, the one I aim to get to the bottom of today with a series of reckless and rampant speculation, is that much of “Stranger Things” locations though nominally set in Indiana are actually based on East Tennessee.
The evidence, if we’re being generous, is mostly based on the names the show’s creators the Duffer brothers chose for their fictional locales. The town of Hawkins, Roane County, Etowah and Cartersville are all locations in the “Stranger Things” world. The real Indiana has none of those places while East Tennessee has them all.
Throw in the facts that the Duffer brothers summered in Blount County and the central action of “Stranger Things” centers around a secret government facility that bears more than a passing resemblance of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and it seems there’s an argument to be made that in fact the show is far more Tennessee than it is of Indiana.
Not so fast my friends.
Other than the Duffers themselves, I may be the most qualified person on the planet to answer this particular question.
Allow me to offer my bona fides.
Though born in North Carolina and having lived in Tennessee for most of my life, I am – at my very heart – a Hoosier.
Raised in both Northern and Southern Indiana, I spent the formative years – the years I most developed into who I am today – in places like Ft. Wayne, Mitchell and Bloomington. I’d go down to the river in Lawrenceport, visit friends and family in Marion, Paoli and New Albany swim in the quarry at Markle. Amish buggies were a familiar site and we spent our days riding around – mostly unsupervised – dodging in and out of apple orchards and fishing random cow ponds – frequently not knowing whether or not they’d been stocked.
We had corn fields for days and deer the size of horses. We loved John Mellencamp and when Gene Hackman made the movie “Hoosiers,” it was pretty much the height of Indiana culture. We ate breaded tenderloins and persimmon pudding and the fall county fairs were the highlight of the social calendar.
It’s not enough, however, to be able to call yourself an expert in this particular exercise by being a former resident of both Indiana and East Tennessee. You also have to be of this particular era.
I am a child of the ‘80s. But more importantly I am a geek child of the‘80s. Pac-Man fever, dungeons and dragons, video arcades, Star Wars, Ghostbusters. The passions of the children of “Stranger Things” were my passions and while these passions were nation – even worldwide – it’s the little things inside the “Stranger Things” universe that tell me the story is very much of Indiana – specifically Northern Indiana.
For those of you unfamiliar with Indiana, the state is split in halves. The north is very much a part of the industrial Midwest. Northern Ohio, Michigan, Chicago, Cleveland. People in Northern Indiana pull their culture from the neighbors to the East, West and North.
Southern Indiana is as much a part of the south as Kentucky and East Tennessee despite whatever side they fought on in the Civil War. There was no culture shock for me coming from Southern Indiana to East Tennessee. The people in Maryville and Seymour, Sweetwater and Tellico would have been very much at home in Huron or Bedford.
And this is the biggest tell in placing where “Stranger Things” belongs in the world. The Duffer brothers captured a very specific feel, the very idea of what it was like to be 12 years old in Northern Indiana in 1983. The people are what give it away – these are not Southern characters, rooted in the charms and traditions of Appalachia. And to me this is the definitive argument against the Duffers doing anything other than borrowing a few names from East Tennessee.
These people are Hoosiers and that’s the end of the story.
Through season two and into season three, a few things are changing in Hawkins that mute the decided Indiana-ness of it all. First, Hawkins is growing considerably. The mall in season three would take a town several times larger than the Hawkins of season one to support it. And the Roane County Fair in season 3? Oh that the Persimmon Festival ever had the money to bring a travelling amusement park like the one Hawkins hosted for its citizens. Sure, you can blame the influx of secret Russian investors for the sudden growth (don’t ask) but season three’s Hawkins seemed a lot more generic that the tiny Northern Indiana town we first were introduced to.
The one thing that leaves the door open to Hawkins actually being in East Tennessee comes in episode 1 of season three when the kids climb a large hill, small mountain to set up their version of a HAM Radio. There is nothing in Northern Indiana, at least not that I’m aware of, that would match it. Southern Indiana has hills – not mountains – but hills that could serve as the spot they climb. But in Northern Indiana this thing would rise above the flatlands like Kilimanjaro. School groups would come from miles around for the chance to see such an imposing natural wonder. In the winter, it’d be a ski slope and a sledding destination from as far away as Chicago.
No my friends, that hill may work as a plot device, but it is more of Hawkins County, Tennessee than it is Hawkins, Indiana.
Of that, you can be sure.